Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (December 22, 1860)

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The intelligence from China which was published in London on Saturday last was satisfactory enough in a political sense. The march upon Pekin, and the military occupation of that great city, which had been represented by certain of our public men as enterprises most dangerous, and difficult of accomplishment, have been actually achieved. The Emperor of China has fled to the northward, and has left our negotiators to deal with the municipal authorities of Pekin in place of his own ministers. This is much as though Queen Victoria had fled to the Scotch Highlands, and left the Lord Mayor of London to settle matters with the leaders of an invading force which had actually succeeded in taking possession of the metropolis of the British empire. This last subterfuge in action will be of as little avail, in the long run, as any of the diplomatic shifts and evasions which preceded it. It is the act of a debtor, who, instead of facing the importunity of his creditor, runs away; or, if not this, it is as though a man should commit suicide in order to evade the chances of a fight. It seems that the Allied Armies must be content to occupy Pekin throughout the winter—but at least we may comfort ourselves with the reflection that this can scarcely prove Sebastopol over again. This time we are within—not without—the walls of the city. There is shelter. The ordinary measures which have been taken by the Chinese themselves for victualling Pekin during the winter will also suffice for the French and English troops. There is food, and for the same reasons clothing is also to be procured upon the spot. Reinforcements of men and additional supplies of the munitions of war will no doubt be forwarded without delay to the scene of action. Although the stormy seas of the north of China will scarcely admit, during the winter season, of the presence of a naval force in those waters, the basis of operations upon the coast appears to have been secured, and the communication between the sea-board and the capital is easy, is open, and is short.

There is, however, a very painful drawback to the satisfaction with which this intelligence would otherwise have been received. Six of our countrymen have been captured, not in war, nor in the course of warlike operations, by the Chinese, and as yet the fate of two is unknown. As we are precluded by considerations of space from discussing this subject in our present number, we will defer all remark upon it until next week. Indeed, sorrow and indignation at the possible murder of Captain Anderson and Mr. De Norman (if we are to credit the story brought back by the Sikhs), and our apprehensions for the fate of Captain Brabazon and Mr. Bowlby, to say nothing of the miserable story of the captivity of Mr. Parkes and Mr. Loch, would scarely permit an Englishman as yet to speak of these Chinese matters in a calm and temperate spirit. The facts themselves are but half known, and, as communicated thus far, they leave us a prey to all manner of perplexities. Under what circumstances did our countrymen surrender to the Tartar brute who commands the Chinese armies? Were they together at the time, and were they separated afterwards? or were they captured by twos and threes, and, separated from the first, did they endure apart their indignities or their fate? Of Mr. Parkes and Mr. Loch it is said that they do not know where the rest of the captives were; but suppose them still to be with San-ko-lin-sin’s army, and whether in or out of Pekin was unknown to them. From this we are rather inclined to infer that the six English captives had lost sight of each other before Mr. Parkes made his appeal to the Tartar general. Mr. Parkes could speak the language of the enemy; he could urge at once, with the energy of a man pleading for dear life, all the considerations of policy which entitled him and his companions to humane treatment, if appeals to the honour of the Tartar ruffian to allow them to return were in vain. If Mr. Parkes failed signally—if the only answer was a treatment at once contumelious and cruel—what hopes may we cherish as to the treatment of those who had not Mr. Parkes’s facilities, but were left to combat in hopeless silence against the obduracy of their captors? We are told that two of them succumbed at last to the exhaustion inflicted on them by insufficient food, by lacerating bonds, and other inhuman tortures. We are left to our imagination to infer what the latter may have been, and to picture two of our countrymen sinking slowly, perhaps by the most atrocious cruelties, almost in reach of our triumphant forces. There is, however, a bare possibility, to which the “Times” adverts, that even they may be still living, and that the Sikhs may have brought us back a lying report. As regards Captain Brabazon and Mr. Bowlby, apparently nothing whatever is known. There is no reason why they may not be still in captivity at some distance from Pekin; or, better hope still, they may have been already released, and we may learn this welcome intelligence by the next mail. The interest which attaches to their particular fate is the greater, from the entire obscurity in which it is hidden, and we feel on their behalf a deeper anxiety, because we can entertain a more reasonable hope. Encouraged by the “Letters from Head-quarters” which are now publishing at the very moment we are closing our third volume, we are rejoiced to hope yet, with some confidence, that they may eat their Christmas dinner with their comrades in Pekin.